Photo by Leah Sottile

Slugs Are Destroying the Businesses of Oregon's Sustainable Farmers

Slugs are costing eco-friendly farmers in the Pacific Northwest tens of thousands of dollars each year. But even after Oregon hosted a "Slug Summit" to deal with the gastropods, no one seems to know how to fix the problem.

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May 18 2015, 5:00pm

Photo by Leah Sottile

Matt Crawford has begun taking overhead shots of his fields, like these, where he can see just how bad the damage is from slugs. Photo by Leah Sottile

When thunderclouds settle over the Willamette Valley, they lean on the edge of Matt Crawford's land. In the rolling hills of velvet green, some of Crawford's fields are so bright yellow, from ten miles away it looks as if they'd been lit underneath by spotlights.

For 155 years, the Crawford family has called this place Seabreeze Farms for the way the Pacific cool rolls through a break in the mountain range that separates the state from the sea, breathing soothing air over their farm and into the Willamette Valley: the beating heart of Oregon state. It's why some say the Valley produces wine as good as France, why, back when Crawford's kin first stuck a shovel in the soil here, people called this place the "promised land of flowing milk and honey."

Matt Crawford is what children think of when they hear the word farmer: He's a towering 41-year-old man in a pair of overalls. He works here with his father, Tom, 72, who greets strangers with a "good to know ya" and a sandpaper handshake. If anyone knows this land, it's the Crawfords. And yet, the family is finding itself at odds with something that's as typically Oregon as they are, a thing that is carving huge chunks out of that bright yellow field.

Slugs.

Oregon's trademark cool, wet weather is ideal for terrestrial gastropods, like the bright yellow native banana slug. And Oregonians have never shied away from embracing the gooey creature as their own. Eugene, Oregon crowns a "slug queen" each year. Tourist traps peddle slug souvenirs: Glass-blown slugs and slug books are sold at the Columbia Gorge's Crown Pointe; long, globby, plastic-antennaed magnets and yellow "slug crossing" squares are for sale at Multnomah Falls.

Farmer Sam Sweeney walks into his field. Photo by Leah Sottile

But slugs aren't so funny when they're costing you money. Matt Crawford says last year alone his farm lost between $40,000 to $60,000 from slug damage. They're not alone. Researchers at Oregon State University recently called a "Slug Summit," packing a room with farmers and Christmas tree growers and nursery owners all panicking over slugs. Grass seed growers alone estimated some $15 million lost per year—all because of slugs. Researchers "know it's a problem," says Crawford. "I'm not sure they completely realize that it's getting worse and worse and worse."

In fact, slugs have become an expensive, existential problem for one of the state's largest industries—a problem, it seems no one knows how to fix. "Slugs remain a mystery," read headlines after the slug summit meeting.

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It's a mystery, perhaps, because of the tangle of issues surrounding slugs: a perfect storm of greener agricultural practices, a graying farming population, deep cuts in state budgets, and nonexistent research dollars.

What everyone can agree on is this: slugs have never been this big of an issue in Oregon.

"We've gone from 15, 20 years ago, where this wasn't a problem," another Willamette Valley farmer, Bruce Ruddenklau, tells me. "A good friend of mine says 'gosh, I've spread more slug bait in an hour than my Dad did in his entire career farming.' It's something we're not used to dealing with."

Everyone's got a theory, but some will even argue that this is a problem with roots 30-years-deep, one that started at 3:50 PM on August 3, 1988, with one of the bloodiest incidents to ever happen on Oregon soil.

Plumes of smoke from field burning. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Everything was black. Scattered across the interstate, the charred skeletons of burned cars and trucks steamed. Some looked as if they were made of wax, the way they melted into the blacktop.

On that day in 1988, a semi-truck ambled up the I-5 corridor when a plume of black smoke from a nearby farmer's field blew across the freeway, blocking the driver's vision. Field burning was common practice then for farmers, and the road was hazy that day—but this fire was out of control. When the black smoke blew over the roadway, that semi drove over a nearby van, locking a family of four inside where they burned to death.

The carnage was like a line of falling dominoes: two children were thrown from the back of a pickup. When their mother tried to save one, the other child was hit by another panicking driver. Seven people died that day, and 37 others were injured. One survivor told The Oregonian, all he could hear was "glass busting, metal crushing, and the screaming."

"You could pinpoint that as one of the first primary nails in the coffin for field burning," says Ruddenklau. In fact, the bloody incident triggered a two-decades-long fight in Oregon to ban farmers from field burning (which finally took effect in 2010). Field burning was often utilized by grass seed farmers to clear crop residue and curb erosion, but Oregonians were divided over the practice. Farmers saw burning as an emulation of what happens in nature; but others became worried about air quality and adverse health impacts. "This is not an urban-rural issue," representative Paul Holvey said before the legislature.

Ruddenklau disagrees. "People didn't like the big plumes of smoke," he says. "It's just one of those situations where it's just the... difference of opinion between urban society and rural society, and the lack of understanding of why it was being done."

Ruddenklau emphasizes that he doesn't miss the headaches presented by field-burning, and that it was being used excessively. But now that slugs are a problem on his land, he can see how burning may have helped control populations. Slugs, he says, love to make a home in the straw piles that cover fields after harvest. He used to be able to burn all of that away; now, he can't.

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A farmers soil is like their bank account, or an investment fund. As Ruddenklau sees it, greener farming practices that ensure soil health are a no-brainer.

Both he and the Crawfords's operations have adopted "no-till" policies—which means they don't rake up the land after harvest, like a traditional farmer might. Plowing kills weeds and pests, but "the less you disturb your soil, the greater the soil biology can become," says Marie Vicksta, a Conservation Planner with the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District. So plowing isn't all it's cracked up to be, she says—it can lead to increased runoff and water pollution, and soil erosion.

But despite no-till's benefits, only 35 percent of American farmland has adopted the practice. Vicksta's organization has been promoting better land management practices like no-till to Oregon farmers, but not everyone's so eager to jump on board. Why? Slugs.

"The no till issue makes it worse. The fact that [farmers] don't field burn makes it worse," says George Hoffman, a faculty research associate at Oregon State University who has studied slugs. Without plowing or burning, there's just wet straw on the land. "Slugs love wet straw," Hoffman says.

So here are two farmers trying their best to adopt sustainable practices. But both Crawford and Ruddenklau say that the increases in slug numbers has made them seriously question no-till at one time or another—a practice they adopted because it is better for the earth, and for their bottom line.

"You go 'man we gotta find a way,'" Crawford says. "No till doesn't solve all problems, it just makes new problems."

Both say they've been at it long enough to keep going. But with slugs attacking tiller and no-tillers alike, they say there's probably no chance in hell other farmers would give no-till a shot. Not while slugs are such an issue.

"They throw up their arms. 'I don't want to invest into this and lose to slugs,'" Ruddenklau says. "In terms of water conservation, water quality—we're not necessarily gaining to the extent that we could."

And that's bad for everyone.

A banana slug. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Sam Sweeney rumbles around his 1900-acre farm in what is, essentially, an orange and black golf cart with oversized truck tires.

Sweeney took over his Dayton, Oregon farm from his dad in 1960, and now his son runs the day-to-day. Today, he drives his car past a long line of hazelnut trees and stops at his perennial ryegrass field. It's the lush green stuff you'll see carpeting suburban lawns and golf courses. He hits the brakes in a place where the land is bare, save for patches of wet straw.

Sweeney, in brown overalls splattered with mud and paint, pulls a knife from his pocket and flips over a pile of straw. "Here's one," he says, pointing with the blade. It's so small I have to strain to see it, but when I do, it looks like a tiny, drop of milky-colored water. But once we see one, we see more—tiny goobers that look as if someone blew their nose in the straw.

"What are you gonna do with it?" I ask.

"I'm gonna step on this one," he says.

It's a grey field slug, an invasive European species that has overrun everything from Oregon farms to home gardens. And unlike the native banana slugs—the ones pictured on those "Slug Xing" magnets—the grey field slug "basically eats first and asks questions later," Hoffman, the researcher from OSU, says. "They'll eat just about anything."

Sam Sweeney has been farming in the Willamette Valley since the 1960s. Photo by Leah Sottile

No amount of squishing slugs could help Sweeney's farm, he says. The farm lost 10 percent of a field of ryegrass planted last fall. "That land should be paying rent," he says. "It's gotta pay taxes."

Sweeney has been vocal about conservation efforts in the Willamette Valley, but even he's reluctant to embrace no-till. "Fact is, within the county there's probably only two or three growers that do it, and I don't know why they do it... God bless 'em," he says. "It's just too much chance of losing the whole thing."

Tilling or no tilling, the way Willamette Valley farmers see it, there's just one way to lick the slug problem: bait. And as far as baiting goes, there are essentially two primary varieties, and both present issues.

Most farmers use a kind called metaldehyde—a substance that, in Britain, has been restricted after it was found in drinking water. Metaldehyde won't kill earthworms, which is important because healthy soil means having a lot of earthworms.

Problem is, earthworms love eating metaldehyde.

In case you missed that: Slug bait gets eaten by earthworms. It doesn't kill them. But by them stealing it, no slugs die either. So a farmer like Crawford, who says "we have more nightcrawlers than you could imagine," could spend all day baiting his fields for slugs, and in a couple of days, all of it could be gone because of earthworms.

It's a gamble to get a slug to actually crawl to a piece of bait, eat it, and die. Hoffman says those odds get even worse because slug baits don't hold up well against rain. And in Oregon, a state that might see 160 days of rain per year, that's some terrible news for farmers.

So: on the off chance that it hasn't rained too much, and a slug goes for a piece of bait, eats it and gets sick, Hoffman says that might not end well. "If ... they eat something they don't like, or it makes them sick, then they learn not to eat it," he says. "They learn what is making them sick."

What the hell is a farmer to do?

"We just keep on doing what we've always done," Sweeney says, "And just cross our fingers and pray."

Slug souvenirs can be found at most Oregon tourist spots. These magnets, of native banana slugs, were for sale at the Columbia Gorge's Multnomah Falls. Photo by Leah Sottile

Amy Dreves likes to say that people have to "follow the slime trail" to figure out Oregon's slug problem. She's an OSU research and extension entomologist—someone who studies insects. Dreves doesn't study slugs exclusively, that's what a malacologist does.

She laughs over the phone about the issues presented by Oregon's slugs: "A grower said, 'Let's hire a slug psychologist!'"

She and Hoffman agree that there's no "magic bullet" approach to killing off slugs and saving agriculture in the Willamette Valley. It's going to take a slug expert to figure it out, and that's going to cost a lot of money. And it "may require big changes to farming," Dreves says.

Nicole Anderson, who works for OSU's agricultural extension service, says Oregon State is pleading for $16 million from the legislature, part of which would fund slug research.

Extensions like Anderson's historically provided farmers with the latest scientific information to help them do their job. Where Sam Sweeney remembers five or six extension agents being at his disposal, now there's just Anderson. She says she's responsible for aiding farmers in up to four counties.

"It means that farmers sometimes depend more and more on private consultants" for new information, she says. "The problem there is they're often tied to sales of products. It makes unbiased scientific based information harder to get at."

Photo by Leah Sottile

When it comes to slugs, Anderson tries to be an ally to farmers. But "when there's less bodies, there's less ability to generate information as quickly as it was in the past."

But farmers can't wait for money to come through. They can't wait for more extension agents to reappear. They can't wait for a malacologist to be hired and answer why slugs are suddenly devastating Oregon farmers. They're losing money right now.

Hoffman says right now the onus is on farmers to get creative. "You need better farmers," he says. "People really willing to look and manipulate things, and play around with things and make changes."

But, he points out, there's an inherent problem there, too: with the average age of an American farmer pushing 60 years old, how much gas does a farmer have left to figure out the slug problem?

"In our society, change is scary," Matt Crawford says. "More so than it probably ever has been before, and that makes me worry that progress will be very slow and very hard."

Bruce Ruddenklau agrees. He says he scratches his head how the slug could be so closely associated with Oregon state, and yet there isn't anyone who knows how to fix this problem:

"We know more about the backside of the moon," he says, "than what's under our feet."

Follow Leah Sottile on Twitter.

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